Bees are dying in Colombo and Gampaha districts


Bees are dying in Colombo. Residents in some parts of Colombo city have seen dead bees in their gardens. In the light of this new finding the question whether this is due to the spread of the same disease that has been ongoing in the Gampaha District for the past two years or so.

Bandara Thambavita, Secretary, Bee Protection Organization, a volunteer organization based in Kandy, has been studying the new disease spreading across some parts of the country. He claims his outfit was the first to detect the problem in the country. Bee Protection Organization, established in 2006, has membership of over 1,000 representing all parts of the country.

"We first came to know about a disease affecting the bees about two years ago and that was through our members in the Gampaha District. At that time beekeeping industry was shaping up quite well there. One of our members in Meerigama had around 300 boxes. Another in Attanagalle had about 100. When the disease broke out the industry collapsed overnight. Those big timers now don’t have more than 10 to 20 boxes."

Apis cerana indica (or the Indian honey bee) is the honey bee mainly found in Sri Lanka. It is generally considered a robust species, quite resistant to diseases (compared to the Apis mellifera, its Western cousin).

Thambavita said: "Most of the diseases bees contracted up until then could be controlled by natural methods alone. But, soon we found this was a different disease as it was not responding to any of the conventional methods in our armory".

On the spreading viral disease Thambavita emphasised, "This will be known only be the people who keep bees. For others the issue may be obscure.

"We soon informed the authorities and even the President of the new development. We cautioned that if a remedy was not found soon the fruit production could drastically drop in the country as the bees were important pollinators."

Dr. Ashoka Dangolla, professor in veterinary clinical science at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science, University of Peradeniya, suspects the particular disease affecting the honeybees in Sri Lanka have been affected by what is called viral brood disease.

"This, you find in many parts of the world. When we bring more bees’ honey from outside we are likely to face this situation. Either the virus has come from the honey imported from another country or someone may have purposely introduced it to Sri Lanka to destroy the industry here. People seem to be catching up (producing) bees’ honey as a business very well. There is a lot of money in it," said Dr. Dangolla.

Dr. Dangolla explained: "I went to the affected areas and saw what had happened. We did a few trials here and there. We tried to change the queens, worker bees and locations from here and there, for example from Kandy to Ampara and likewise. But, we don’t have conclusive evidence. People are still working on this".

Thambavita’s organisation seems to be at loggerheads with the Ministry of Agriculture.

"The Agriculture Ministry didn’t want to accept the situation at the beginning when we brought the disease to its notice. First, they were into the denial mode. Later, they were saying it was due to a mite called varrora that affected Apis mellifera colonies in the West. But, we were not ready to accept that. Now, they acknowledge it is due to a viral disease".

GGR Vimukthi, assistant director, Agriculture Department’s Bee Development Unit at Bindunuwewa, Bandarawela, while acknowledging the presence of sac brood disease in some districts of the country, recommends destroying the affected bee hives as the only viable solution to the problem. "As this a viral disease there is no other solution but to destroy the affected colonies."

He identified Gampaha and Kegalla as the worst affected districts. "At the same time, beekeeping is taking place well in the other parts of the country." He said Badulla, Rathnapura, Kandy, Galle, Anuradhapura and Kurunegala were districts where beekeeping taking place as a lucrative home based industry.

He also spoke of an ambitious project launched by the government to increase bees’ honey production locally. "About 100 villages have been identified for the project. Twenty persons from each village will be provided with grants and facilities to improve their industry", said Vimukthi. The project is expected to kick off in next month.

Vimukthi noted, "It is important for the beekeepers in the non-affected areas not to bring colonies from the affected areas. Affected areas should also not send colonies to the other parts of the country".

Thambavita believes that the solution to the problem lies in not importing bees’ honey from. He says Australia, India, China and Thailand export bees’ honey to Sri Lanka.

"We import about 60 to 80 metric tons of bees’ honey a year, while the annual local production is about 20 metric tons".

Commenting on the danger of importing bees’ honey, Thambavita mentioned, "For example, there was a microorganism detected in honey imported from Thailand".

Thambavita points through opening the lid of bees’ honey container the virus trapped in it is released to the environment. "As we can’t call for a ban on importing bees’ honey we tell the public not to open the lid of the container".

The Ayurveda Department has been the major consumer of the imported bees’ honey since 1986, according to Thambavita. Beauty culture industry and food industry (mainly in the production of biscuits and sweets) are the other major buyers of imported bees’ honey.

"It was only the last week the Export Development Board inquired from me about the possibility of exporting bees’ honey to Philippines. Sri Lankan bees’ honey has a high demand internationally. We agreed to export one metric ton a year as we didn’t want to lose this opportunity".

"Beekeeping as a professional industry was developed in 1851. All the technical knowhow was known by 1926. But, sadly, beekeeping in Sri Lanka is still at the 1851 stage".

"The other solution to the problem is to boost the immunity of the bees", says Thambavita. Having researched extensively on the subject he recollects, "In the 60s too India and Sri Lanka experienced the same problem but not at this level. Then India used bin kohomba (Munronia pinnata) to boost up bees’ immunity and control the disease".  

He identifies Ududumbara, Galenbidunuwela and Kothmale as areas to which the disease has begun to spread.

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